Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar
by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press, 2012), 311 pages.
A day, an hour, of virtuous liberty / is worth a whole eternity in bondage.
— Joseph Addison, Cato
Some of us know that the Cato Institute is named for Cato’s Letters, a series of essays promoting freedom penned by Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard in the 1720s. Dedicated trivia buffs know that Gordon and Trenchard called themselves “Cato” after Marcus Porcius Cato (96–45 B.C.), a Roman senator who tried — and failed — to prevent Rome from transforming itself from a republic to an empire in the first century B.C.
But who was Cato? What did he do? Is he someone libertarians should respect — or ignore?
Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni conclusively show that Cato was a flawed hero, but someone libertarians should know more about. He was not by any standard a libertarian, but a case can be made that he was the first anti-imperialist. He was the most admirable man of his era, one whose virtues outlasted him, thanks largely to Joseph Addison’s Cato, a 1712 play that enhanced the understanding of liberty for many of the Founders of the United States. When George Washington, for example, wanted to cheer up his troops at Valley Forge, he staged a production of Addison’s play as a way to remind his men that liberty was worth the sacrifices and hardship his men were enduring.
Goodman and Soni are men of the Left. Goodman has been a speechwriter for Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Soni is the managing editor of the liberal Huffington Post. They are nonetheless good writers and very fair in their assessment of Cato. They convincingly show that he was someone who was indeed the most freedom-minded person of his time and who did many admirable things. But to give Cato a high grade, they persuasively argue, the historian has to use a very steep curve.
Marcus Porcius Cato was born in 95 B.C. There were at least six generations of Catos, so we generally refer to him as Cato the Younger, to distinguish him from his great-grandfather, Cato the Elder, a war-lover who inserted “Carthage must be destroyed” into every speech he gave until the Romans finally wiped out their weakened but perennial foe.
The Roman Republic was by no means a democracy, but an oligarchy where power alternated among several ruling aristocratic families. There were elections, including one for the top office of consul, but power was largely concentrated in the hands of several ruling families, one of which was Cato’s. His first grasp of politics came in 64, when he was elected one of the 20 quaestors responsible for collecting taxes and disbursing the expenses of the state. His term as quaestor was noted for his firm honesty. He made sure that no illegal activity took place and indicted scores of people who had taken or given bribes in previous years. In fact during his year in office, Romans refrained from looting the treasury because “Cato will not consent.”
But Cato’s behavior after he left office, the authors believe, shows the fundamental flaw in his character. He made no attempt to ensure permanent reforms, but hoped that by his being a good example, his fellow oligarchs would behave correctly and become more just and admirable. That never happened. “Without Cato’s day-in, day-out supervision, the return of corrupt insiders and well-connected oligarchs was almost assured,” the authors write. As soon as Cato gave up the quaestorship, bribes and corruption once again became common.
Cato’s next job came in 62, when he was elected tribune, a job designed to protect the common people (or plebeians) against arbitrary government power. One of the ways Roman governments of that era tried to ingratiate themselves with the people was through offering free or cheap grain. Some Romans realized that the dole was expensive and could bankrupt the state. Cicero, often an ally of Cato’s, warned that expanding the dole “would draw the plebeians away from work, throwing them into the arms of sloth, and … exhausting the public finances.”
The authors observe that Cato, in his year as tribune, “presided over the greatest expansion to date of the Roman welfare rolls.” When Cato took office as tribune, about 40,000 Romans were eligible for the dole; when he left, about 200,000 were getting free grain. Cato ensured that as much as 15 percent of the Roman budget was being spent on welfare.
Why did Cato, who prided himself on being thrifty with government funds, do that? Goodman and Soni speculate that it was because he and his fellow aristocrats feared being overthrown by the plebeians, who far outnumbered them. Buying off the poor with freebies was the price the aristocrats paid to prevent revolution. “As distasteful as it might have been to him,” the authors contend, “Cato found himself one of the fathers of the Roman welfare state.”
The Romans of that era most feared being ruled by one man. The Republic began when the last Roman king was overthrown in 509 B.C. Power was divided between two consuls to prevent a monarch from being reinstated.
But in the years between 60 and 50 B.C., it was increasingly clear that a single ruler would control Rome. Three men ruled Rome in an uneasy triumvirate: Gnaeus Pompeius, or Pompey the Great; Julius Caesar; and Lucius Crassus, the richest man in Rome. Pompey had begun his campaign as a general at the age of 19 and was so good at slaughtering his enemies that he was nicknamed “Aduluscentulus Carnifex,” or “the teenage butcher.” He successfully conquered the kingdom of Pontus, flooding Rome with the wealth of the East. Crassus died in the plains of Syria. Julius Caesar, realizing a great military victory was the key to power, spent eight years in what is now France fighting the Gauls.
In 54 B.C. Caesar’s campaign against the Gauls was interrupted when several hundred thousand Germans began to flood into the country at what is now roughly the border between Germany and Belgium. The Germans were fleeing more warlike Germans and asked for sanctuary. Caesar offered them land on the east bank of the Rhine, and the tribes asked for three days to consider his offer. Caesar ignored their request and moved closer to the Germans’ camp. The Germans then asked for an additional day, and Caesar again ignored their request. He sent 5,000 of his cavalry as an advance guard, and the Germans attacked them, killing 76 Romans.
The Germans then sent ambassadors under a flag of truce, asking Caesar to forgive them and saying the previous day’s skirmish was due to miscommunication. Caesar ignored the request, holding the ambassadors hostage and launching an all-out attack against the Germans. Because Caesar had kidnapped the ambassadors and ignored the truce, the Germans were confused and panicked. The German camps broke up, and a great many Germans leapt into the Rhine and drowned. As many as 300,000 Germans died.
It was a glorious Roman triumph — and, in Cato’s view, a war crime. Envoys and ambassadors were sacred, Cato argued. By violating the laws of war, what other laws would Caesar ignore if he were in power? “Assailing Caesar’s plans from the outset,” Cato’s biographer Plutarch writes, Cato “declared that it was not the sons of Germans or Celts whom they must fear, but Caesar himself, if they were in their right minds.” He said that if Caesar entered the Senate, he would be arrested and be put on trial for war crimes.
That was not an idle threat. Caesar enjoyed immunity from prosecution as a general, but Roman law said that once he entered Rome, he was a private citizen subject to senatorial authority. Caesar could escape by being elected a consul, but he still had to enter Rome as a private citizen, making him legally vulnerable.
Caesar tried, and failed, to get the Senate to change the law. Instead, the Senate declared Pompey to be the sole consul. In 49 Caesar decided to send a legion to conquer Rome (when he famously “crossed the Rubicon”). Pompey responded by abandoning Italy and fleeing for Greece. There, his forces lost the battle of Pharsalus om 48. Pompey was assassinated, and the remnants of his army fled for Africa.
Cato then did his second noble deed. The surviving republican forces regrouped around the city of Utica in what is now Tunisia. A decade earlier, when Caesar was consul, he had given the merchants of Utica some trading benefits. Now the leaders of the republicans were suspicious and proposed slaughtering everyone and destroying Utica. But Cato, a general in the republican forces (but not the commander), persuaded the republicans to spare everyone. His admirable decision saved thousands of lives.
In 45, Caesar crushed the republicans at the battle of Thapsus. Cato then committed suicide. But his death did not end his influence. Many of the plotters who assassinated Caesar in 44 knew Cato, most notably Brutus, who was Cato’s son-in-law and another biographer. And when Caesar’s great-nephew Augustus became emperor in 31, he made sure to avoid all trappings of power. Caesar had flirted with being a king, but Augustus pretended he was just a humble citizen.
Many prominent writers in Imperial Rome, nostalgic for the dead Republic, composed all sorts of tributes to Cato, removing his warts and painting him as a heroic defender of lost liberties. The poet Lucian even wrote Pharsalus, an epic poem with Cato as hero.
The liberty-loving founders of America were steeped in the classics and found the Cato portrayed by the imperial Roman writers inspirational. Cato’s legacy, however, was not limited to the founders. The motto of the Confederate States of America was from Lucan’s Pharsalus: “The victorious cause was dear to the gods; the lost cause, to Cato.”
The Cato who passed into legend was an inspirational champion of liberty. But as Goodman and Soni show, the actual Cato is far less heroic. He was personally admirable, and should be commended for saving the Uticans’ lives and for warning the Senate about Caesar’s military atrocities. But as a politician, he was a party of one with no allies and limited ability to persuade his colleagues. Perhaps there was little that could have been done to prevent Rome from devolving into an empire, but Cato didn’t try very hard to prevent the erosion of Rome’s few remaining liberties.
Rome’s Last Citizen shows that Cato the Younger was a champion of liberty — but a severely flawed one.
This article was originally published in the August 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.